tending chickens at eight months pregnant under a full moon

I lay in our bed, stomach as taut and round as the harvest blood moon eclipsing above us. I am nearly eight months pregnant, full of life that wriggles and presses and practices swallowing to prepare himself to enter this wild, hungry-making world. The baby rolls and my whole stomach undulates, an immense wave of motion tugging at me as I try to fall asleep.

             Before Jacob left for school this morning, he screwed the last few pieces of fencing to a new, portable chicken coop for our young ‘Freedom Rangers’, birds we will harvest the same week the baby is due. They will be our meat for the winter, fortifying my body after it loses blood and is cranking out milk. We have been feeling guilty; we haven’t been taking the kind of care with these birds that we want to. We have these beliefs about ourselves that we are good animal caretakers who give their animals the lives they deserve. And yet we have other jobs, other responsibilities, and this batch of birds had stayed in a small pen for much longer than we felt good about. And so we have been eager, out of both love and guilt, to finish this coop and put them on pasture, give them green grass and new scratch every day.

            We finished the coop in the morning and plopped the birds in, watching them delight at the fresh violets between their feet, the space to frolic and flap their wings and run at each other, half playing and half asserting pullet dominance. We worried that the coop remained a little unsafe for them; there is no floor so they can peck, and there is always a danger of some voracious fox tunneling under the bottom to lustily grab some tender meat for late night feasts. We had long planned to buy electric fencing, but it’s incredibly expensive and we hadn’t mustered the courage to do it yet.

            Last night we found ourselves at a farmers supply store in the fifteen minutes squeezed in between our day jobs and our birthing class, where we practice moving our hips and how to moan deep and bovine to make it through difficult contractions. We grabbed a white bundle of electric netting, not yet the tangled mess of wire it so often becomes on farms, and slipped off into class.

            After two and a half hours of practicing hip-pressing and trying to hide the fact that I was tearing up through a video of a woman lowing as a wet, blue, sticky baby head emerged from between her legs, cracking his mother wide open until she wept with joy as the baby was laid on her chest, we were tired. We drove the forty minutes back home and wanted to plunge straight in to bed. And yet we worried about the chickens. Something might come exploring in the night, a mouthy rat or greedy raccoon, eager and opportunistic to chew on one or more of our babies.

            We ended up grumpy with each other, each not wanting to erect the fence but also not wanting to be the one to direct us to bed without trying. We lugged the heavy fence under the moonlight out to the pasture where the birds were quietly nestled into a mass on the ground. They have a roost bar but seem so far to prefer a large puddle of cozy warm feathers.

            We unrolled the fencing, using headlamps to read the directions off of the charger: ‘Dig grounding rods six feet into ground. DANGER OF ELECTROCUTION if rods not properly grounded.’ We forged ahead, spreading the wire netting out in front of us, strategizing about using rebar or random wires to send the charge through. Slowly we came to the decision that trying to electrify wiring on a damp night in the dark, exhausted, was not safe. Dying via electric shock in the dark was simply not worth the risk of a predator ambling by.

        We went to bed. We fell asleep in that strange, full-moon sleep when it’s still bright outside and feels like almost-morning in the dead of night. Suddenly electrified, I sat bolt upright as I heard a terrible, high-pitched screaming ringing out from behind the house where the chicken coop sat. I yelled out, “THE CHICKENS!” and Jacob and I leapt out of bed simultaneously. He ran to the back of the house and flung open a window, shouting NO! at the top of his lungs, while I took the stairs two and three at a time, flinging open the back door and running into the field, illuminated by the foggy moonlight. I saw nothing. No activity, no commotion.

“Grace, it’s a porcupine. It’s just a porcupine,” Jacob called down to me, his voice evening out, but still heavy with breath from the sprint. A lumbering figure huffed down a nearby ancient apple tree and trundled off into the forest, miffed at having his late night snack and song interrupted. All the chicks lay where we had left them, cozy and oblivious.

I have never heard a porcupine calling for a mate before, but it’s a truly harrowing sound, high-pitched like a baby in extreme distress. Since he was perched at the top of trees to wail his yearning, the song carried across our field, ricocheting off the aged stonewalls and back into our house, strong and supplicating. This grumpy porcupine steals our crab apples and leaves them half-chewed with quills strewn around in the morning, but he poses no real threat to our flock. He simply wants sweet fruits and a mate, and happened to be calling out into the darkness on a harvest moon night, hoping some other lonely soul might lumber his way.

My belly tickled as I felt my baby stretch. Is this what the scary part of parenting will be? Trying our best, not doing enough, fearing that we failed, leaping up in the moonlight to protect our young from threats, real and imagined? Will we forever be sleeping with one ear open, ready to spring up together and charge into action?

The two of us padded back to bed, awake and relieved and tender, the fussiness with each other from our fencing struggle erased through our shared protective love of our animals. We snuggled down into our summer quilt, almost not warm enough anymore and pressed our bodies up close. Jacob began to breathe deeply soon, his warm stomach soothing the ache in my lower back. As he began to doze off he whispered tenderly into my ear, ‘You will be such a great mom.’